Josie Appleton

Spiritless Olympics


The Olympic spirit is sorely missing from the debate about Greece's preparations for the 2004 Olympic games, due to be held from 13 to 29 August.

The public aim of the games is to promote individual heroism and solidarity between countries, yet the world seems to be almost willing Athens 2004 to be a disaster. The Greeks are having to field predictions of doom, from fears about terrorist attacks to worries that the facilities won't be ready on time. 'An artificial climate of concern is being created', complained Greece's culture minister, Evangelos Venizelos.

Concerns that the 2004 Olympics could be a terrorist target have been floated for a while. Greece has spent a record £430million on security, and more than 50,000 security personnel, including 16,000 soldiers, will guard both the country's borders and Athens. Greek and American troops ran a three-week exercise, codenamed Shield of Hercules 2004, responding to 'catastrophic scenarios' such as dirty-bomb attacks and hijackings. According to one report, Piraeus, the port where visitors will be accommodated in cruise liners, will 'resemble a fortress' -- with gun-toting guard officers and barbed wire barriers. Athens will be a no-fly zone for the games, and US troops will be stationed offshore to respond to emergencies.

Yet the more Greece prepares, the more everybody else frets. Newspaper journalists probe the country, pointing out all its weak spots. One reporter said that she managed to walk into Athens' building sites unobstructed, and noted security experts' concerns that these sites could be 'scouted by terrorists' and 'a device could be planted amid the chaos'. Others detailed all the weaknesses in Greece's 'porous borders', which meet Macedonia and Albania in the north, and form a windy, island-strewn coastline in the south.

Athletes fear for their own safety, with US tennis star Serena Williams saying back in March that the threat of terrorism might keep her at home. 'My security and my safety and my life are a little bit more important than tennis', she said. The US government has warned its athletes not to wear their national colors outside the confines of the Olympic village, because this might make them targets. Meanwhile, UK counterterrorism officials are apparently so concerned about the standards of Greek security that they are considering dispatching their own marksmen to protect British athletes.

All this talk is not helping matters. Given that the aim of terrorism is to create panic, if terrorists know that the whole world will be watching and holding its breath there are more incentives to strike. And bands of international marksmen wandering around Athens with their guns cocked would be a recipe for disaster. 'Any presence of foreign armed security guards for the athletes' protection is strictly prohibited', said a spokesman for the Greek Ministry of Public Order. 'There are 202 countries participating in the Games, so you can imagine what would happen if we had armed security forces for every country.'

Another widespread concern is that the site won't be ready in time. The Times (London) flew out a British structural engineer to examine the Greek's preparations. 'It is going to be tight', Norman Train said gravely, 'they should have done a third by this stage but less than a quarter is done.... I can't see how they will finish this on time'. There was a bit of tut-tutting at the Greeks' lackadaisical attitude: 'Despite the urgency of the situation, there was little building activity at any of the sites visited', reported the article.

Competitors are concerned that inadequate facilities will affect their performance. Plans to build a roof over the swimming pool complex have been shelved for lack of time, so swimmers will have to cover themselves in sun cream. A spokesman for British Swimming said: 'It is asking a lot of them to perform in these conditions -- it could seriously upset their performance.' The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is now attempting to get insurance to cover the possibility of cancellation, insisting not very convincingly that this didn't indicate a lack of faith in Greece. Understandably, Greece is getting a little tired of all this worrying. A senior official at Athens 2004 said: 'You can tell that we like to do things at the last moment, but we will make it. Foreign countries like England and America should give us a break. We knew from the beginning that we would have to use the whole time.'

The Olympics have traditionally been a focus for both cooperation and conflict. In ancient Greece, wars would be suspended for the Olympics -- the different sides would put down their arms and compete on the field, challenging each other to contests of strength and skill. The modern Olympics, which began in 1896, involved an element of mutual cooperation and respect, but also often reflected the political rivalries and conflicts of the times -- most notably, during the Cold War.

At today's Olympics, we are seeing neither international cooperation nor staunch political rivalries. Instead, we are witnessing a mood that couldn't be less 'Olympian' -- the small-minded, petty worries about safety, with each country demanding their own security guards, coaches moaning that their swimmers will be put off by the sunshine, and one of the top tennis players in the world pondering whether her safety is worth more than her sport. All this fretting threatens to turn the 'greatest show on Earth' into a logistical and public order problem. Instead of admiring the feats of the athletes, it seems we'll just be hoping that the buildings are ready and everybody gets through the games alive. Merely surviving will be seen as a 'success'.

Luckily, there are a few modern-day Olympians who are just getting on with things. UK marathon runner Paula Radcliffe went out early to inspect the course, which wasn't finished. But Radcliffe was unfazed: 'It would be nice to have the new course finished but there is a course there now. Right now, I am just focusing on training and being ready for whatever course I have to run on.' If more people had her attitude, Athens 2004 would stand a far greater chance of success.

Josie Appleton writes for Spiked Online.

More Alienated Than Ever

Since Sept. 11, says Ahtsham Ali, vice-president of the Islamic Society of Great Britain, British Muslim youth have been taking US president George W Bush's with-us-or-against-us rhetoric to heart.

'They say you are either with bin Laden or you are with America', says Ali - and they have little doubt about which side they would choose. 'If you go to Bradford or Oldham, the average youth identifies - well, sympathises - with bin Laden.'

Touring Islamic societies and youth clubs around the UK, Ali has noticed a changed mood in recent months. 'The number of activated Muslims in the UK is increasing. The number of frustrated youth is increasing. Islamic societies are packed out - the largest university societies are Islamic societies.'

Ali wants to show Muslim youth that 'there is an alternative' to Islamic fundamentalism, by taking them through true 'Islamic principles'. He clearly has his own beliefs and prejudices - but he raises questions about the allegiances of Muslim youth that deserve more attention than they have received so far.

These changes in the British Muslim community began long before Sept. 11. 'Prior to Sept. 11, there was an increase of identity-searching among British Asians', says Ali. Many young Muslims have been asking: '"Who are we in Britain - are we this or that?"' There were also feelings of impotence and frustration - a sense of distance from Western institutions. If you disagree with something, says Ali, 'all you can do is march, or go to your MP' - but when 'there is no legal release for the frustrations' of Muslim youth they tend to spill over, and frustrations can lead people 'beyond the boundaries of sanity'.

Sept. 11 has 'speeded up' the search for an identity and the feelings of frustration. According to Ali, the war in Afghanistan 'showed the average British Muslim the hypocrisy of the situation'. Bush was preaching humanitarian values while bombing Afghanistan even further back to the Stone Age. The war on terrorism became a focus for cynicism and anti-American sentiments - and hardened the conviction that Western governments cannot be trusted. 'They see this as "America, Britain - they're all the same"', says Ali. 'Once they have this view, they feel impotent. They can't understand how it is possible that in today's world of equality people can get away with violence and mayhem.'

The recent Israeli incursions into Palestinian territories, as America apparently stood by, compounded the way some young Muslims view the West. There is a sense that 'America will always back Israel', says Ali. And such experiences have clarified people's feelings of alienation from Britain and the West in general: 'Many who were on the fence were pushed over into the Islamicisation of their identity.'

Ali believes that 'this feeling of impotence might generate some to take some kind of drastic action'. More Muslim youth might 'go abroad to do their bit for the war'. There may be problems now, says Ali, but things will get worse: 'In the future there will be much more.'

Ali exaggerates the prospect of a coming storm. But he raises useful questions. Since Sept. 11, the war on terror and fundamentalism has been seen as an issue of 'over there' - of al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the Afghan mountains. Western elites have been less keen to face up to the problem of alienation at home - the question of what makes some Western Muslim youth sympathise with bin Laden more than with the political leaders here.

Sept. 11 and the war on terrorism raised the question of allegiance to Western governments: 'are you with us or against us?' For many, it seems that the answer remains unclear.

A Very Strange Time Capsule

Joel Meyerowitz - whose photographs appear in the exhibition "After September 11: Images from Ground Zero" at the Museum of London -- says he took photos of New York in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks because he "wanted to do something useful".

"I had the same wounded feeling as everybody else", he says. He had tried to volunteer, but they turned him away, so he decided to document instead. He was horrified that photographers were being kept away from Ground Zero: "We can't have a blackout on history. What event is not photographed? I was determined to go in and make an archive." His photos -- of workmen taking out the dead, of the remaining North Wall -- are the only visual record of the recovery work at Ground Zero.

After Sept. 11, many New York cultural institutions felt the same urge -- to document and preserve. There is an ongoing attempt to collect all of the memories and material culture related to Sept. 11. From poems left by New Yorkers to aspirins sent for relief workers, from bits of rubble to "Missing" signs and dust masks...Sept. 11 is fast becoming one of the best-documented events in history.

But why are we collecting all this stuff? And what will it tell future historians about us?

Dr Sarah Henry, vice president at the Office of Programs at the Museum of the City of New York, told me in October 2001 that Sept. 11 "becomes an opportunity for a time capsule". By documenting the event and "looking at history from its every angle", there "may be an opportunity for people [in the future] to understand things about social, political and economic history in ways we cannot anticipate now".

A massive time capsule is a good way of describing the current collecting efforts by state and cultural institutions. Almost everybody seems to be collecting something. South Street Seaport Museum is documenting the response of the maritime community to the attacks, collecting oral histories, photographs, videos and other artefacts. The New York Center for Urban Folk Culture (Citylore) has photographed the spontaneous shrines that sprung up in response to the attacks, and is collecting "found" poems. The Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art is collecting prints inspired by Sept. 11.

The New York Historical Society is collecting artists' responses to the attacks, World Trade Centre memorabilia, children's artwork, victim's personal effects, and equipment worn by rescue workers. The Museum of the City of New York has acquired Bellevue Hospital's "Wall of Prayer", a spontaneous bulletin board that sprung up in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, containing images of the lost, prayers and poems -- and it is creating a "Virtual Union Square", collecting electronic submissions of people's artistic or poetic responses to Sept. 11. And the Association of Public Historians of New York State is coordinating members' efforts to document their communities' responses to the attacks.

State agencies are also involved. A group led by New York State Archives and the National Archives is assembling evidence of how governments, hospitals, schools, mental health organisations and religious groups responded to the event. According to state archivist Kathleen Roe, "It's probably the most monumental documentation you can think of".

Columbia University Oral History Project is recording post-Sept. 11 "oral histories". Mary Marshall Clark, director of the Columbia University Oral History Research Office, told me that "we have never done anything on this scale. We have done this many interviews before [around 360], but we have never done this many this quickly, or so close to an event". The project will keep in touch with some of the interviewees over time, to see how the event has affected their lives.

Dr Steven Jaffe is curator at the South Street Seaport Museum in Manhattan, which has collected interviews with some of the people involved in the evacuation of around 300,000 people across the Hudson River by tugboat, yacht and speedboat after the attacks. According to Jaffe, "Everybody has felt a deep personal need to do something in response.... This is how I respond -- I can preserve for posterity, not only documents, but also how people felt about it".

The story of how 300,000 people were evacuated will no doubt be remarkable. Indeed, viewed on their own merits, many of the post-Sept. 11 projects and exhibitions seem fair enough. But collectively, they add up to something rather strange.

It is strange that so many institutions seem to be collecting -- and that they are collecting so much. The New York Historical Society says "there is always an increase in the documentary and creative record in response to...seismic occurrences". This might be true in some cases, but not in others. According to Jane Carmichael, director of collections at London's Imperial War Museum, during the Second World War collecting virtually ceased: "Everything was in short supply -- museums had made it their priority to protect exhibits from bombing. Some of our exhibits were wheeled out to take part. It wasn't until the war was over that the collecting effort began."

When the Imperial War Museum did begin to collect, it didn't just ask for people to send in their submissions. Museums have to make hard choices about what is worth collecting and what isn't. "We are offered a lot of material", says Carmichael, "and we have learned how to say no politely and courteously".

What is also strange is that cultural institutions are documenting people's manufactured responses to the Sept. 11 attacks. A future society looking back on Sept. 11 won't just have physical remains of the attacks, official documents, newspapers, videos, diaries and letters to go on. They will also have personal documents made as an actual response to the attacks.

Historically, this is unusual. Do we have this for Hiroshima or the Blitz? Of course we have letters, diaries, poems and other things that indicate something of what people felt about historic events -- and no doubt historians often wish we had more. But these were things that people wrote or produced for themselves, or for their friends or lovers -- they generally didn't do it for a museum or to put in the street. We don't have this kind of mass production of "responses" to catastrophes of the past.

Today, cultural institutions are actually appealing to people to give their testimonies, or to produce art and write poems. The New York Historical Society has invited New Yorkers to "share their reminiscences of the people and events of 11 September", asking people to "please send your stories, along with your name, phone number, and contact information". The Museum of the City of New York's 'Virtual Union Square' "invites you to contribute images of your drawings, sculptures, posters, paintings, memorials, signs, poems or other creations made in response to the events of Sept. 11".

What a society chooses to collect can tell you a lot about it. I often see an object in a museum and think, "Why did they collect that?". In London's Victoria and Albert Museum there are two rooms full of plaster casts of buildings and monuments from all over Europe, largely made and collected in the late nineteenth century. Those two rooms are like a snapshot of the Victorian mindset: a people who wanted to possess the finest in the world, and to learn from it.

In the early twenty-first century, cultural institutions no longer have the conviction of their Victorian forebears. Museums have become less certain about their role as collectors, studiers and presenters of artefacts, and are refocusing themselves around their audience. On both sides of the Atlantic, they increasingly see their role as responding to the needs of the public, as playing a social role.

It is perhaps out of indecision that cultural and state institutions are collecting so much in response to Sept. 11. There is a certain unwillingness to refuse material or to decide that one thing is more important than another -- which looks like a refusal to step outside of the event and look at it in historical perspective, instead just documenting it, over and over, in all its different aspects.

And the collecting of people's responses to Sept. 11 is related to cultural institutions' desire to play an increasingly social role. Dr Sarah Henry of the Museum of the City of New York said that after Sept. 11, "The city needed something from us as a museum; we felt we had to play a role in healing... Promoting civic dialogue is part of our mission." But she was wary of going too far down this road -- "we don't offer therapy". She visited the Brooklyn Museum a week after the attacks, and they "had a packet out about how to deal with tragedy, how to talk to your children after tragedy. This was a step further than what we were doing".

The growth of the therapeutic ethos is important here. Increasingly, institutions see their relationship to the public as one of soothing and healing. UK prime minister Tony Blair and former US president Bill "I feel your pain" Clinton both made caring, feeling and healing into a big part of their role as leaders. After Sept. 11, the therapeutic ethos became even more upfront -- with everybody wanting a piece of the public grieving process.

But the post-11 September scramble for stuff isn't all down to the institutions -- after all, people began to produce material responses to the attacks spontaneously, almost immediately after the attacks occurred. "Union Square became a particular focal point for kinds of public display, all sorts of sentiments", says Sarah Henry, "commemorative, memorial-type sentiments, also political ones. It literally filled up with material that people brought. It began as a gathering place, then became literally blanketed. There was a need to consider collecting that material.

"There was a cry from the public that it would be preserved for posterity -- people were calling us, sending us money. We had calls from city agencies, saying 'we find ourselves in possession of this material -- what do we do with it?'. A lot of places, where material had to be taken down, there was a great concern that it ought not be destroyed."

Some of the memorials I saw when I was in New York in October 2001 struck me as odd. There were intimate reflections on a lost loved one, angry calls for revenge, and more oblique reflections. Essentially, they were very personal, individual expressions of experience and emotion. The messages were all next to each other, but they didn't connect. And there was none of the consideration or control that normally goes into our public encounters. All you have is a disembodied fragment of somebody's emotion -- and because you don't know them, it is difficult to know what they are talking about.

These messages, poems and artworks looked like the products of vulnerable and isolated individuals, of people frightened in the face of terror. It was a graphic illustration of the "lonely crowd" -- people coming together, but ultimately alone.

The memorials emerged only 48 hours after the attacks -- people came together, seeking support and sources of meaning. After the attacks, the U.S. state to all intents and purposes collapsed - the president disappeared underground, popping up from time to time to make nervous statements. People were faced with fear and confusion, and little means to make sense of it.

As Robert Putnam claims in his book Bowling Alone, over the past few decades there has been a gradual breakdown of civic associations and community networks. People did not have strong support networks to turn to after the attacks -- so they sought solace and belonging in Union Square.

It is questionable how valuable these very personal responses will be to future historians. Aside from the general sentiment, it is difficult to glean much from many of them. The contributions were too fragmented and too self-conscious to give you the insights of a diary, where you would get a proper idea of that person's character and thoughts. They were too unmediated and emotional to serve as a public record.

For museums to actually generate responses to the event is, as Jane Carmichael says, "slightly suspect", as the point of a response is surely that it is natural and undirected. Once you start generating your exhibits, perhaps you have to question their authenticity. According to Carmichael, there may also be problems with using reflections on a historical event: "The point of collecting is to try and be as authentic and close in time to the experiences as possible. What people recollect in retrospect, the details aren't as clear. Memories aren't that reliable. The closer the account is to the event, the more reliable it is about the emotions generated about the event."

However, what we collect cannot help but say interesting things about us. The very fact that responses are being produced, and that institutions feel driven to collect them, will provide interesting historical insights.

It may also reveal a lot about the event itself. After all, Sept. 11 was defined by the reaction to it. The media coverage of the event was often more concerned with giving us experiences and reactions, than analysis. These reactions and experiences, in a sense, are what happened -- and seemed to become even more important than the actual destruction of the World Trade Centre. As Sarah Henry says, "We should try to think about what things people want to understand this event, to understand this moment in history, which is different from picking up bits of daubing -- what does that tell you exactly?".

The attacks and their aftermath, claims Henry, will have "tremendous causative impact. It may reveal things about longer processes, other issues in New York and society, that come to the surface in a moment of crisis". If the collecting after Sept. 11 is making a time capsule of our society, it is a very strange time capsule -- for a very strange time.

Josie Appleton has written articles on museums for Spectator, BBC History Magazine and Museums Journal.

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